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A Tribute and a Charge

Ever since I discovered the independent living movement, Ed Roberts has been one of my heroes.  For those unfamiliar with Ed Roberts, he was the determined man with quadriplegia due to post-polio syndrome who, back in the 1960s, successfully advocated for his right to attend the University of California at Berkeley even after the administration told him that “[W]e tried cripples and it didn’t work” (Shapiro, 1994).

He was the student who tired of living under the strict rules of the campus hospital where the university housed him when he insisted on his right to enroll. Roberts then found ways for himself and other students with physical disabilities to fully participate in campus life as nondisabled students did (Levy, 1988).

He was the advocate who used his personal experience to start the first collegiate Disabled Students Program in the nation (United Spinal Association, 2015), which morphed into a community “independent living center” to empower others with disabilities to live in the community at a time when institutional life for people with severe disabilities was the norm. This center spawned a movement and a network of independent living centers in over 600 communities across the nation that continues to grow internationally (e.g., Barnes, 2016; Hayashi & Okuhira, 2008).

Graphic image announcing the annual National Council on Independent Living Conference. It says: Revolution: A Global Independent Living Movement. Annual Conference on Independent LIving 2017. The "O" in the word "Revolution" is an image of the earth with a little red heart on it.

He was the leader who became director of the California state rehabilitation agency, after his vocational rehabilitation counselor advised him that he was unemployable (Shapiro, 1994).

He was the visionary who, with others, founded the World Institute on Disability to advance independent living and disability rights worldwide and who won a MacArthur Genius award for this work (World Institute on Disability, n.d.).

Image of a globe with the words "World Institute on Disabiity and the acronym "WID".

I was impressed with Roberts’ refusal to assume the “victim” role, after being referred to as a “polio victim” by talk show host Larry King (Goldfarb, 1995). His realization that gaining an education would be the key to his independence and freedom (Shapiro, 1994) made a big impression on me at a time when I was struggling to find my own identity as a person with a disability. I understood his life as a grand statement that people with disabilities should be granted accommodations in their academic programs and in the workplace, so that they can be fully participating and contributing members of society.

My admiration of Roberts, and my own experiences of negotiating academia with a disability, have led me to serve as campus advisor for the University of Kansas campus group to raise awareness of disability issues, AbleHawks and Allies. Through this group, I have been honored to work closely with many students, disabled and nondisabled, who are committed to improving the campus climate for students with disabilities, and to creating a more accessible society for all.

However, as more and more students with disabilities arrive on campus, which I attribute to the combined successes of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the independent living and disability rights movements, I reflect on the barriers that many of these current students face. They are different and more complex than those that Roberts faced. His disability was very tangible, as evidenced by his physical paralysis which resulted in his use of a power wheelchair and portable ventilator. The types of accommodations that Roberts needed were quite clear, in terms of accessibility of the built environment and support from note takers, for example.

Yet, many current postsecondary students with disabilities experience conditions that are much less visible, and that make their need for accommodations less evident but still critical. Members, including leaders of AbleHawks and Allies, have experienced a variety of hidden disabilities such as learning disabilities, autism, traumatic brain injuriespsychiatric/mental health disabilities, and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. These students’ needed accommodations are often more individualized than a building ramp or providing a note taker. Accommodations that may include the need to withdraw from settings due to overstimulation, the need for support to organize schedules and activities, or the need to interrupt one’s studies due to medication changes may be less likely to be understood as vital to their academic success and well-being.

Still, their achievement and, very likely, their future employment success depends, to some degree, on obtaining accommodations to level their playing fields.  My hope is that these students are able to achieve the same degree of support and accommodation that Ed Roberts was able to obtain, and that academia affords these students the same opportunities that those with more visible disabilities have received.

“Everyone has a future”–Ed Roberts declared this as a basic tenet of the independent living movement (Research and Training Center on Independent Living, 2006). As we celebrate and preserve his legacy, I ponder how we can all work to assure that postsecondary students with any type of disability receive the accommodations needed to assure their present and future success? It is a charge that we owe the man who refused to accept the limitations that others placed on him. Thanks, Ed.



Barnes, C. (2016). Independent living, politics, and policy in the United Kingdom: A social model account. Review of Disability Studies: An International Journal, (1)4.

Fleischer, D.Z., & Zames, F. (2001). The Disability Rights Movement: From Charity to Confrontation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Goldfarb, L. (1995). Free Wheeling – People in Motion: Ways to Move. Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities and Science. Retrieved from

Hayashi, R & Okuhira, M. (2008). The independent living movement in Asia: Solidarity from Japan. Disability & Society, 5, 417-429.

Levy, C. (1988). A people’s history of the independent living movement. Lawrence, KS: Research and Training Center on Independent Living Center, University of Kansas.

Research and Training Center on Independent Living. (2006). Ed Roberts: His Words, His Vision. Lawrence, KS: Research and Training Center on Independent Living, University of Kansas.

Shapiro, J.P. (1994). No Pity: People with disabilities forging a new civil rights movement. New York: Three Rivers Press.

United Spinal Association. (2015). Ed Roberts: Disability Rights Advocate with Polio. Retrieved from

World Institute on Disability. (n.d.). Meet Our Founders. Retrieved from


Profile photo of Dot NaryDot Nary received her doctorate in developmental and child psychology from the University of Kansas, and is an assistant research professor at the Research and Training Center on Independent Living at KU.   Prior to pursuing graduate studies, she worked at several centers for independent living in upstate New York and was active in promoting passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Her research interests focus on community participation, home visitability, access to recreation, health promotion and advocacy training for people with disabilities, and on creating accessible communities for all.  She has been active in the Disability Section of the American Public Health Association, serves as staff advisor to AbleHawks & Allies, the KU student group that works to increase disability awareness on campus,and has taught courses on disability and social change at several universities.

Finding Hope

On November 9, 2016, we all woke up to a different reality than we might have imagined the morning before the presidential election. I was asked to write this blog post prior to the election and to explore what the new presidential administration would mean for special education and disability. At the time I was asked to write, I began to plan and outline what I would say. After the election, I took a long time to return to writing this blog because, honestly, I have no idea what the new presidential administration will mean for special education and disability. Let’s just get that right out there up front. I have no earthly idea what kind of impact this next presidential administration and Congress could have on special education and disability law in our country.

Sure, I could wax eloquent for a few paragraphs on the impact that school vouchers could have on students with disabilities. I could write an obituary for the Office for Civil Rights and what that could mean for enforcement of special education and disability law. But the truth is, those of us in the special education community have already discussed these things ad nauseam with each other and with our poor significant others and friends who are not in the special education community. None of us really know what the next four years will bring to special education and disability law and policy. Often I feel like the best thing for special education and disability law and policy would be for the next presidential administration and Congress to leave it alone. The status quo could be better than unknown changes. This may be hard to believe, especially after the way I have started this blog post, but I actually have a lot of hope for special education and disability law and policy over the next four years. I have hope because of two things: potential change we may see from the U.S. Supreme Court and our ability to effect change at the state and local level.

For those of you who have followed the U.S. Supreme Court this term you already know that this is an incredibly exciting time in special education law. This past fall I told my special education law students this nearly every week. During the fall semester these students had the privilege of diving into court briefs from two special education cases before the U.S. Supreme Court – Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools and Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. You may have heard Fry referred to as “the service dog case” or the case with “Wonder, the Goldendoodle.” Fry is actually not at all about whether a student has a right to be accompanied by a service dog at school, but whether the Frys should have exhausted their administrative remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) even though they are not bringing their lawsuit against their daughter’s former school district under the IDEA, but are instead bringing it under the Americans with the Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and they are seeking a remedy not available under IDEA.

As if discussing the exhaustion of administrative remedies under the IDEA is not enough fun for all special education policy geeks, the U.S. Supreme Court did us the favor of taking a second IDEA case this term. The Endrew case could arguably be the biggest IDEA-related case of our careers, for those of us who were not around when the Rowley case was decided. The question before the U.S. Supreme Court in Endrew is what level of educational benefit a student with a disability is entitled to receive through a free appropriate public education. When you read this blog post, I hope that you will be spending your days and evenings dissecting the oral arguments that took place on January 11, as I will be. The Court seemed dissatisfied with the language used by the 10th Circuit to describe the FAPE standard, “merely more than de minimis,” but did not seem impressed by much of the proposed language suggested by the parents’ attorney or the attorney representing the Solicitor General. We will all look forward to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in these cases and what they will mean for our work. I am very hopeful that the outcomes of these cases could have a very positive impact on special education and disability policy.

I am also hopeful about the impact that we could have on special education law and policy at the state and local levels. Many of us may be unsure about the impact we could have on federal special education and disability policy, but I think there is a real opportunity to have an impact here in Kansas. There are many new members of the Kansas Legislature, including many current and former educators. The special educators who work and learn atop Mount Oread have so much to offer the Kansas Legislature and the Kansas State Board of Education. I hope you all – students, faculty, alumni, and friends feel encouraged and empowered to take your ideas and your research to the Kansas Legislature and the Kansas State Board of Education to help make special education better here in our great state. Wherever you live and work you should also consider taking your knowledge and your expertise to your local school district and talk to them about your ideas for improving special education. We should all work harder in the next four years toward bridging the gap between research and practice.

As you look ahead over the next four years I encourage you all to feel as hopeful as I do. Follow the Fry and Endrew cases and think about what the outcome of each could mean for your work. Follow state and local education issues and actively seek out your state senator, representative, and state and local board of education members. Talk with them about how we can improve special education in our state. Let’s not sit back and see what will happen to special education and disability law and policy over the next four years. Let’s work to make a difference right where we are, right now.




Laura Jurgensen is an attorney with the Early Childhood, Special Education, and Title Services team at the Kansas State Department of Education and teaches Law and Special Education at the University of Kansas. Laura earned her J.D. at Washburn University School of Law and did her undergraduate work in elementary education at Pacific Union College in California. She is thrilled to have accidentally fallen into a career in special education law. When she is not reading cases and OSEP letters, she and her husband are chasing their two toddler boys and loving (nearly) every minute of it.















Paradigm Flipping: A Tribal Citizen Lawyer’s Perspective


Image courtesy of the Muscogee (Creek) Indian Nation website located here.

To begin the New Year, Hawk Hopes Blog had the honor of recording a live interview with University of Kansas 2016 Langston Hughes Visiting Professor, Sarah Deer. Deer has worked to end violence against women for over 20 years. She is currently a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. Her scholarship focuses on the intersection of federal Indian law and victims’ rights. A citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, Deer is a co-author of three textbooks on tribal law. She has received national recognition for her work on violence against Native women and was a primary consultant for Amnesty International’s Maze of Injustice campaign. Her latest book is “The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America.” She is the recipient of a 2014 MacArthur Fellowship and KU Law’s first Langston Hughes appointment. Click here to listen to the live recording with Hawk Hope Blog editors, Sorcha Hyland and Lara Mann.


Could you tell us a little about yourself, your work, and your relationship to the University of Kansas (KU)?

DEER: I am a professor of law at Mitchell Hamlin school of law in Minnesota. I’m a citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma and I’m a graduate of KU two times over. I have my bachelor’s degree from KU and also my law degree from KU. This semester I’ve been lucky enough to visit here as a Langston Hughes visiting professor.

How did you come to understand the idea of disability from a tribal perspective?

DEER: I am framing this as coming from the perspective of mental health. I did anthology a few years ago where a Native woman had contributed a chapter about being a victim of sexual assault. In the aftermath of that she developed what could be described as Dissociative Disorder –leaving her body when thinking about the trauma. From her perspective, that was something that could be perceived as a gift or a blessing as opposed to detriment or disability. It really flips the paradigm—something that is natural outgrowth of trauma is not treated as a disease but treated as a reaction to some sort of oppressive power. That made a big impact on me because I’ve dealt with mental health issues most of my life, so thinking about flipping the paradigm was very informative.


Curricula across public and higher educational sys-tems fail to fully acknowledge the cultures and languages of non-dominant populations. In special education, we see significant problems with disproportionality—Tribal citizen students, students of color and linguistic minority students are funneled into special education. From your perspective, what do we need to do to better inform how we prepare teachers and how we operate from K-12 to the academy?

DEER: I think education around the history of tribal governments is very important. Somebody teaching in the inner city of a big city might think, ‘tribal nations don’t have any influence or impact on me’ but if you have Native students, or if you don’t have Native students, understanding the historical context of what has happened on this continent will prepare people to really be more critical about how they think about Anglo-American norms and values.

I’ve looked at how traditional family law may have worked. Often times the parents’ cultural protocol for dealing with a concern about that child was to refer to one of the grandparents. Let’s say Johnny’s not doing his math homework. The teacher tells the parents. The parents may need to inform one of the grandparents, depending on the culture. Then that grandparent will give instructive information back to the biological parent, who then will engage with the teacher and/or the child. A lot of times with our Anglo-American model of education, we think, ‘the parent should be striving immediately! If I tell the parent there’s a problem with this child, why are they not engaged with me? They must not care.’ rather than understanding that would be inappropriate in that family context for the parent to be the initial responder. That’s something I noticed in the ways in which kinship circles work in tribal communities.

Considering the very high rates of sexual abuse that is a product of oppression in tribal communities and reservations—issues around gender, young girls and their sexuality, protecting young girls and responding to young girls who have been victimized—what role might teachers play in that context?

DEER: I think it’s a fine line because statistically most of the Native girls in your classroom will be victims of sexual assault. That’s just the numbers. So how do you reframe that? I think one of my concerns would be that you would be potentially paternalistic or materialistic about ‘oh these poor girls.’ That could take over this framework which is not an empowering place to be. Understanding the reality that a majority of Native women will be victims of sexual assault might play a role in what you develop in terms of curriculum. Whether you address issues such as sexual assault in the classroom, if it’s connected at all to what you teach, or whether that’s something you need to be aware of but not necessarily engage in as an outsider, is a fine line. Being aware of it is certainly required for whatever course of action you take. If you don’t know about it, then you’re not going to be able to think about ways that you could be helpful for that community.

What’s your advice to white/majority K-12 teachers in public schools who have little context for teaching students who identify as Native or are part of a tribe?

DEER: When you discuss any issues that relate to Native America, particularly for the younger students, be very thoughtful about activities. Just the other day, my friend’s daughter who is Alaska Native, had to dress up as a pilgrim for Thanksgiving. Her mother didn’t do anything about it because, ‘how many battles can I fight today?’ You want to share information about Native Americans in a way that child can grasp but being really thoughtful about what’s actually happening in the classroom is important.

I think becoming educated about the particular area where you reside—the land where the school is, what tribal people occupied that land—acknowledge that and share that with your students so they’re aware. That land where they now stand once belonged to an Indian tribe. Those things can be really valuable to students and they relate to that kind of thing.


Tribal citizens at the Dakota Access Pipeline construction site near Cannonball, North Dakota. Photo by Arlo Iron Cloud from Sourced here.

In what ways can teachers and educators incorporate the current pipeline protests and protectors into the curriculum so social transformation can be happening in the schools as well?

DEER: There is a professor of American Indian studies who uses her Indian name, Waziyatawin, also known as Angela Wilson, and she thinks children are often times quicker problem solvers than adults because they’re not constrained by their life experiences. She would explain to children how the Dakota people were divested of their land in the 1800s in a way that children could relate. She would ask ‘what should we do about that now? how should we resolve that? how can we make this right again? what could be fair?’ The kids would respond, ‘Native people to get their land back!’ and adults are really hesitant to say something like that. Engage in critical thinking, asking, ‘what is the pipeline?’ and then ‘what is an Indian tribe?’ Asking students to engage in critical thinking about how Indian tribes are affected by oil—how are all affected by oil—would be an innovative approach to middle school curriculum.

The Muscogee are traditionally matrilineal—how does this affect your work as a feminist?

DEER: It’s been very validating to do research about how traditional Muscogee people conceived of the world and gender and their epistemology—which was not pure equality in the sense that men were women and women or men—but that both genders and third and fourth genders had particular roles to play that were equally appreciated. That’s not to say that men did women’s work and women did men’s work; there was segregation, but the women’s work and role in the community was not denigrated and not discounted. I was thinking about reclaiming some of that heritage and engaging with tribal communities to think about ‘what does this mean for us today? how did patriarchy affect our tribe? how might we try to deflect patriarchy?’ is really exciting. There’s a lot of good information out there now about feminist approaches to tribal law and feminist approaches to indigenous studies.


How does the international world respond to your work and shape the way you approach it, in terms of frameworks, laws, and disabling environments that cause oppression?

DEER: What I learned working with Amnesty International is that the high rates of sexual violence can be framed as an international human rights crisis. That’s how it was framed in “Maze of Injustice.” I didn’t know what labeling would actually achieve but what it did achieve was changes in federal law. Senators were outraged when they read the report and they wanted to do something about it. That’s how we got the Tribal Law and Order Act and the Violence Against Women Act—Reauthorization through this understanding that the United States is a violator of human rights, and we can’t accept that. I’m not sure if the international human rights framework is resonating within individual tribal communities. Some tribes are engaged with the UN but I’m not sure it matters to every single tribe that we call it that. It’s more of this injustice, this oppression, some people call it an epidemic—which I pushed back on—but a crisis doesn’t necessarily need to have international language around it.


Riot police during prayer at the North Dakota Pipeline protest site. Photo by Rob Wilson Photography. Sourced here.

The image of a maze in “Maze of Injustice,” what epistemologies inform that idea that navigating your way to social justice involves going through this puzzling environment?

DEER: It refers to the legal system. It depends on if your victim is Native and your perpetrator is not, or you are non-Native and your perpetrator is Native, where did the crime happen, who is responsible, and what federal law applies to this reservation. The maze is the actual legal system itself.

How can a non-Native person borrow from a tribal framework that is not inherently their own? Is that potentially colonizing?


DEER: It can be. It’s a delicate issue for sure. I just finished an article on animal abuse in Indian Country and it’s a paradigm flip. The title of the article comes from a quote from a Native person; it’s called “Maybe the Animals Will Take Pity on Us.” It’s really saying that the traditional indigenous way of thinking about animals yields more productive outcomes when you’re thinking about our responsibilities to the animal world and the animal world having pity on us as humans because they’re so much wiser than we are.

As I was working on the article, I was reading a piece by a non-Native person who was saying, ‘let’s be thoughtful about how we engage with traditional ecological knowledge’ that can be useful and very helpful. But it’s our language, our knowledge, so we need to be given credit for it. There are certain parts of our traditional ecological knowledge that might not be appropriate for us to share with people who are not part of our community. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer to it, but it has to be a really thoughtful engagement, otherwise things can feel disrespectful.


Change Begins Within


Photo Credit: Ponderosa High School students stage a walkout to protest what they say is a high teacher turnover caused by poor education policies by the Douglas County School district March 09, 2016. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

The shortage of special education teachers available to serve America’s six million children with disabilities is a significant concern that must be addressed. Thornton, Peltier, & Medina (2007) report that 98% of public school districts in the US do not have enough qualified special education teachers to serve our students. In addition, the circumstances become worse each year because of teacher attrition (number of teachers leaving the profession). In fact, the National Coalition on Personnel Shortages in Special Education reports that the attrition rate among special educators (12.3%) is higher in comparison to regular educators (7.6%) (Sutcher, & Carver-Thomas, 2016).

A lack of certified personnel and high teacher turnover can result in greater expenses in recruiting, training and supporting new staff and difficulty closing the achievement gap. More importantly, this can impede the ability of students with disabilities to reach their full potential and leave school prepared for adult life (Mason-Williams, 2015; Sutcher, & Carver-Thomas, 2016).

Commonly cited reasons for teachers leaving the profession include salary, excessive paperwork, limited resources, unsupportive leadership, student behavior, student motivation, and limited funding to attract and support graduate students. Many recommended solutions to the problem require financial investments such as increasing teacher salaries, providing teacher mentors, increasing professional development, and adding additional support personnel (Mason-Williams, 2015; Kolbe & Strunk, 2012).

As an experienced public school teacher, mentor and teacher educator, I agree that financial investments to improve quality of life and professional skills might make a difference in teacher attrition. However, I think there are also changes that  can be made within the educational system to address attrition which might have an even more positive effect.


Every year teachers are asked to do more with fewer resources, yet I found that teachers are generally willing to do what they need to do for students. While frustrating, it is my experience that teachers work collaboratively and rise to the occasion to meet the needs of their students and schools. If all education stakeholders  could teach, provide examples, and reinforce the need to integrate collegial and supportive communication practices into every day practice, teachers might feel greater job satisfaction and be less inclined to leave.

Each generation of new teachers enters the profession with enthusiasm, and content knowledge to meet diverse student needs. Teacher education programs reinforce the need to develop positive relationships with students/families, but they do not emphasize the need to develop and use positive and constructive people skills among colleagues. Nurturing these skills and relationships is directly linked to positive feelings about one’s own practice. Considering different perspectives, treating others as you would like to be treated and giving colleagues the benefit of the doubt could make a huge difference in school culture and overall job satisfaction.

I once had a principal in a high school with 2000 students and 200 staff who visited classrooms regularly. She would write personalized thank you notes when she saw teachers trying something new, helping a colleague or going above and beyond the call of duty. She encouraged teachers to recognize colleagues and share examples of best practices. Last year my administrator asked teachers to participate in teacher appreciation week to celebrate their colleagues. This resulted in an engaging and meaningful recognition of teacher efforts. We ended the week feeling great about our profession because we were acknowledged and appreciated by our school family.

The majority of teachers with whom I worked, mentored and taught came to the profession with a sincere desire to make a difference in the lives of students. Inadequate pay, limited resources and long hours have, for as long as I can remember, been an understood, albeit problematic, reality of the profession. I believe the best way to address teacher attrition and strengthen the profession is to better support the profession with kindness and thoughtful and persistence recognition for the work done day after day..

We must work collaboratively with teacher education programs, professional organizations, state, community, central office, and administrators to more effectively and publicly celebrate and support teachers by making them feel valued and reminding them what motivated them to become teachers. Let’s make a purposeful effort to meet the multifaceted needs of the current and future teacher workforce. All stakeholders in special education must make a commitment to celebrate teaching and collaborate with others to ensure teachers are prepared to meet their own needs as well as the diverse needs of their students in 21st Century schools.


Kolbe, T., & Strunk, K. O. (2012). Economic incentives as a strategy for responding to teacher staffing problems: A typology of policies and practices. Educational Administration Quarterly, 48(5), 779-813.

Mason-Williams, L. (2015). Unequal opportunities a profile of the distribution of special education teachers. Exceptional Children, 81(2), 247-262.

Sutcher, L., L. D., & Carver-Thomas, D. (2016, September 15). About the shortage. from

Thornton, B., Peltier, G., & Medina, R. (2007). Reducing the special education teacher shortage. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 80(5), 233-238.


Glennda McKeithan is a lecturer and program associate with 20+ years of experience working in public schools, and she has taught at four institutions of higher learning. Glennda earned a M.Ed., and Ph.D. in Special Education from North Carolina State University. Her research interests include meeting the needs of students with high functioning Autism in general education settings, the practical application of evidence based interventions and developing effective online instruction.


Learning to Listen: “Who Me? I’m Not Him”

The late Richard Pryor (1940-2005) was known primarily for breaking racial and racist rules hilariously and fearlessly. The significance of Pryor’s life in the context of Special Education, from a cultural and civil rights perspective is demonstrated here. Hawk Hopes blogger, Ray Pence Mizumura, shows how Pryor’s reality did not just constitute multiple disabilities but multiple forms of oppression—and most critically—with multiple strategies for coping if not challenging them. Continue reading

Beyond the Schoolhouse to Systems Change: Tranformation Through Inclusive Leadership


By Cynthia Mruczek


Yayoi Kusama. Infinity Mirrored Room–The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away. 2013. Wood, metal, glass mirrors, plastic, acrylic panel, rubber, LED lighting system, acrylic balls, and water. 113 1/4 x 163 1/2 x 163 1/2 in.

Over the course of an almost-20-year career teaching in public schools and in higher education, I have had the privilege of working with all kinds of people. Some of these individuals have become my nearest and dearest friends. Others float on the periphery of my life—coming into focus every so often to exchange well wishes or compliments on one another’s families. Others…well, our professional relationship ended with new positions or life events that sent us down different paths. I am thankful for each of these relationships—they have all brought me valuable insights on teaching, learning, working with kids, and curricula. Most recently, my career path led me to accept the role of coordinator of the Leadership in Special and Inclusive Education Graduate Certificate (LSIE) at the University of Kansas. This position involves considerable  collaboration—and a new learning curve where I continue to draw on the successes and failures that have shaped my career to date. Here, I highlight what I have learned in my work with others to create more inclusive school communities and reflect on what has been missing in our collective leadership efforts.


As a former special education teacher, a general education teacher, and teacher-educator, I have always held the belief that students with disabilities need to be fully included in the general education classroom. As the product of a relatively traditional special education undergraduate program, this was my initial definition of what “inclusion” entails. I relied largely on where students should physically and situationally receive services, as opposed to a more complex understanding of the habits of thinking and attitudes that produce and sustain inclusive education as a practice and a school culture. Luckily, I was encouraged to explore this deeper definition by my own teacher-mentors, and through formal and informal professional learning opportunities, often prompted by lunch room conversations with other colleagues. Led primarily by my former principal (let’s call her “KD”) — my fellow staff members and I were encouraged as a group to “reflect, refine, and reach higher” in our collective understanding of how to best meet the needs of all students, including students with disabilities.


We worked with students who experienced an array of challenges that moved beyond any categorical understanding of “ability”— poverty, discrimination, and learning English as a second language in an English Only state to mention but a few. In the midst of these realities, KD encouraged us to think about what we could do differently. She inspired us to move beyond pathologizing or situating the problems in the students and their families. She encouraged—or really required us—to think about the positive relationships we needed to build with all children and how to create a culture where there was always “someone who really loved them” at school.

We certainly were not perfect and we encountered many challenges. Yet, with this as our primary mission, we made great strides in creating a school climate where many of our students were happy and comfortable. It showed in their achievement levels and their behaviors. For example, we had a number of kids who challenged gender norms through their dress and attitudes. Some “came out” directly as lesbian or gay with virtually no reaction, and in essence full acceptance, from the staff and student body. As educators and role models, we had many important conversations about “identity.” We considered how we positioned ourselves as individuals as well as how our identies impacted our classrooms where the majority of kids we worked with were racially, ethnically, and linguistically minoritized. In my current role as the LSIE coordinator—many may imagine I have a skewed, if not a romanticized vision of what a school can achieve. However in hindsight and in reality, I have had first-hand experience of the kind of magic strong leadership and inspired educators can produce. I have observed and experienced what students—all students—can achieve when they are allowed to feel included in their own success. This “magic” validates and underscores my belief that inclusive practices work and produce the best outcomes for all students, especially students with disabilities.


Allan Rohan Crite. School’s Out. 1936. Oil on canvas. Photograph taken by Sorcha Hyland courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, May 2016. As the label associated with the exhibition of this painting noted, it represents a romanticized view of the Everett elementary school in Boston’s South End and captures Crite’s life-long efforts to challenge stereotypical depictions of Black communities.

As is the norm, many of us in this magical school, under the leadership of KD, moved on to new positions and other opportunities. Yet I continue to return to the stories and strategies I gained from this period in my career to inform my current work in preparing future teachers and administrators. After I left this school, I continued to have many pivotal experiences that further pushed me to think critically about our efforts, and more importantly, to imagine “what could be.” My understanding and definition of an inclusive school is, now, more than ever, primarily focused on social justice. Scholars well-known to KU SPED, Waitoller and Kozleski (2013, p. 35), define inclusive education as,

[T]he continuous struggle toward (a) the redistribution of quality opportunities to learn and participate in  educational programs, (b) the recognition and value of differences as reflected in content, pedagogy, and assessment tools, and (c) the opportunities for marginalized groups to represent themselves in decision-making processes that advance and define claims of exclusion and the respective solutions that affect their children’s educational future…

picture-5Under KD’s visionary leadership, we made headway on the “redistribution of quality opportunities to learn” while we strived to develop our abilities to better include parents and families in the decision-making process. This remains an ongoing learning process in light of the very structured and standardized educational climate in which public schools across the nation are situated.  Visionary and inclusive leadership is not easy. There were times under KD’s leadership when we attempted to enact school-wide reform efforts only to be stopped in our tracks by competing district or state-driven policies.

A framework for systems change (Kozleski, King Thorius, and Smith, 2014) would have been critical in our work, in order for us to adapt to and navigate the complexities involved in engaging multiple, intersecting activity systems. In order to work towards more socially just and equitable results for all students, particularly those at the margins of participation (e.g., students with dis/abilities, those learning English, kids from undocumented families, etc.)—a systems change framework would have been paramount to our efforts.

Further learning was needed for us to understand the multifaceted aspects of our own intersectional identities too and equally, to recognize the intersections our students also navigated and experienced (Crenshaw, 1991). Such frameworks, and an emphasis on intersectionality, would have equipped us to better deconstruct and understand how power and privilege could further marginalize and oppress our school culture, ourselves as teachers, and most importantly our students who came from communities where generations experienced marginalization and oppression first hand.

We made great strides, but not without a lot of challenging and emotionally charged work that had to be done. As I reflect back on our successes and where we fell short – I am, as I know many of my former colleagues are, very proud of the work we, and our students, collectively accomplished at that school. Yet I am again reminded, as Kozleski and Huber (2012) note, that transforming one school is insufficient. As the coordinator of the Leadership in Special & Inclusive Education Graduate Certificate at the University of Kansas Special Education Department(KU SPED), we now have a program that can fill a critical and an important need across many, if not all, school communities.


Street poster art curated and produced by children in a “guerilla art camp”, facilitated and taught by the Lawrence Arts Center, Lawrence, KS. Photograph courtesy of Sorcha Hyland.

The KU SPED LSIE Graduate Certificate is designed to address the needs of not just one school, but of an entire system of schools. Our mission is to provide school leaders and administrators with the tools, knowledge, and habits of thinking they need to build a very solid background in special education law and policy, in the context of creating more inclusive school cultures. LSIE positions and prepares professionals from all sectors of school administration—to lead sustainable reform efforts at multiple levels of the public education system. The readings cited in this blog, for example, are indicative of the kind of critical thinking and research-based discussion that LSIE offers its student participants as they learn what it means to become leaders in the field of cutting-edge inclusive education practices, not just in the United States, but internationally.


Elizabeth Kozleski (Chair), Michael Wehmeyer & Ann Turnbull, leaders in inclusive education practices from the University of Kansas Special Education Department. Professor Kozleski developed, leads and also video-presents in the LSIE program, with Tom Skrtic pictured below. 

This 32-week program is designed as a highly innovative, professional online learning experience where state-of-the-art processes such as game simulation of district-level decision-making, interactive discussion boards, and intensive instructor-student and peer-to-peer interactions are used to build deep, collaborative learning opportunities. Participants who successfully complete this online KU SPED Graduate Certificate are fully equipped to advance the rights of all students, confront biases about special education and other historically marginalized populations, and overcome implementation challenges of inclusive and special education policies in systemic and sustaining ways.


University of Kansas Special Education Distinguished Professor, Thomas Skrtic, conceptualized the LSIE program, and also video-presents key constructs and themes throughout.

In closing, I ask that if any aspect of this story resonates with you – if you are in a leadership position in a school or district, if you hope to be in a leadership position someday, if you are searching for more socially just opportunities for all students, or you are interested in understanding the research on the leading edge of inclusive schools –check out our LSIE Graduate Certificate. Join us to work towards reforming and transforming not just “one” school, but our whole school system as we lead and educate to advance the rights of all students.



Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-1299.

Kozleski, E. B., & Huber, J. (2012). System-wide leadership for culturally responsive education. In J. Crockett, B. Billingsley & M. L. Boscardin (Eds.), Handbook on Special Education Leadership. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Kozleski, E. B., Thorius, K. K., & Smith, A. (2014). Theorizing systemic reform in urban schools. In E. B. Kozleski & K. K. Thorius (Eds.), Ability, equity, and culture: Sustaining inclusive urban education reform (pp. 11-35). New York: Teachers College Press.

Waitoller, F. R. & Kozleski, E. B. (2013). Working in boundary practices: Identity development and learning in partnerships for inclusive education. Teaching and Teacher Education, 31, 35-45.


Cynthia’s Bio

Dr. Cynthia Mruczek has been an educator for 18 years. She has worked in urban settings as a special and general educator, as well as an instructional coach, serving students from grades three through high school. Her doctoral work was centered on teacher learning and its impact on students of color in urban classrooms. Currently, Dr. Mruczek is currently an Instructor in the Special Education Department at University of Kansas. Her research and consultative work focuses primarily on teacher learning related to issues of equity in the classroom. She has partnered with schools across the country on various topics, including: culturally responsive pedagogy and classrooms, Culturally Responsive Cognitive Coaching and leadership, and building positive teacher/student relationships, among others. Additionally, Dr. Mruczek has partnered with ASU and USAID in providing support for international teacher educators from India and Africa in the area of gender equity in schools. Dr. Mruczek has a strong passion for equity and social justice, which drives her research and partnerships.


Diversity in Unexpected Places

statue-and-auditotiumWhen asked how I would describe my students—I teach at Haskell Indian Nations University, a four-year college here in Lawrence for American Indian and Alaska Native students from federally recognized tribes—the word I like to use is “diverse.”

Friends are often puzzled when I give this response. “But by definition, isn’t it less diverse than most universities?” they ask. “After all, even historically black colleges and universities admit non-black students; Haskell only admits students from federally recognized tribes. Every single one of your students is Native.”

What they say is true—in order to attend, students must have proof of tribal enrollment—but it overlooks the wide variation within our student body. Race, culture, economic class, educational background…there are many different kinds of students at Haskell.

First, some background: Haskell Indian Nations University was founded in 1884 as the United States Indian Industrial Training School, a boarding school for Native children to teach trades and homemaking skills. As with many boarding schools of the era aimed at Native students, the goal was assimilation into larger European-American culture—students were forbidden from using their native languages; they were given short haircuts, uniforms, and English names; and they were expected to worship at Christian church services. This philosophy was summed up by U.S. Army officer Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School: “Kill the Indian and save the man.” Conditions at these schools were not good, and students dealt with poor nutrition, disease, abuse, and neglect. Not all survived. That history is still palpable at Haskell even today, whether in the stories of hauntings of campus buildings by the spirits of former students, or in the presence of a small cemetery of children’s graves on the edge of campus.

Over the years, conditions improved, and the school evolved. The Industrial Training School became the Haskell Institute (named for U.S. Representative Dudley Haskell, who played a large part in getting the school located in Lawrence), a high school that later became a vocational-technical institute. In 1970, it graduated to a junior college model, becoming Haskell Indian Junior College. In 1993, Haskell evolved once again, beginning to offer bachelor’s degrees, and was renamed Haskell Indian Nations University. Now the only federally-run, intertribal four-year school in the country, Haskell serves hundreds of American Indian and Alaska Native students from over a hundred federally recognized tribes in partial fulfillment of treaty and trust obligations. In contrast to its assimilationist beginnings, Haskell now attempts to incorporate Native culture and identity into everything its faculty, staff, and students do.

So, then, if all our students are Native, what kind of diversity do we have at Haskell?

Racial: We have students that, on first glance, might appear to be solely white, or black, or Latino. Other students “look traditionally Native” enough to pose for a statue of Sitting Bull.

Tribal: We have students from a host of different American Indian and Alaska Native tribes. From the Pacific Northwest to the Great Plains, from the arid Southwest to the eastern seaboard, students come from different tribes, each of which has its own culture. Some come from rural reservations, while others come from heavily urban areas. There is no universal “American Indian” experience. Growing up in the Navajo Nation is different from life in Tahlequah, Oklahoma (capital of the Cherokee Nation), and neither probably represents the lives of Haida people from the Pacific Northwest.

Economic/Educational: We have students from some of the poorest areas and worst schools in the country. (For example, we have many students from Pine Ridge, a Lakota reservation in South Dakota where life expectancies are among the shortest of any group in the Western Hemisphere, one in four children is born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, and infant mortality and teen suicide rates are far higher than the national average.) On the other hand, we also have students from relatively affluent middle-class households and strong public schools, and I’ve taught multiple students who hailed from USD 497, right here in Lawrence.

Preparedness: We have many students who come to Haskell unprepared for college-level coursework. A large percentage of our incoming students have to take one or more developmental classes in either Math or English, and the English Department is currently working on a college bridge program (with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities) to help students in need of additional help transition from high school to college workloads. Conversely, we also have students who come in to the classroom fully prepared, and who could hold their own at any university in the country (Ivy League not excluded!).

However, my friends are right in one of the things that they say: whatever else these students are, every single one is Native. Even this doesn’t mean the same thing to all of our students, though. Some have grown up in “Indian country” and in a strong Native tradition; they might dance at powwows on the weekends, or speak a traditional language. Others come to Haskell to learn more about their Native history and who they are as Natives, which until now may not have been a major part of their identity. In many ways, I believe the fact that everyone is Native—and the fact that that does not mean the same thing to everyone—gives a good vantage point from which to appreciate all the differences in Haskell’s student body.

In the meantime, if you’d like to find out more about Haskell, we will be having our annual Indian Art Market on September 10th (10:00 am-6:00 pm) and 11th (10 am-5 pm). It will be held at the Powwow Grounds on Haskell’s campus. Stop by and say hello!haskell


Dr. Joseph Rodriguez

Joseph Rodriguez is an instructor of English and current acting Dean of Humanities at Haskell Indian Nations University. He earned his doctorate in English in 2012 from the University of Iowa, specializing in medieval British literature. In addition to teaching at Haskell, he has also taught at the University of Iowa and Central Methodist University.

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